Stuart Hall’s Reception Theory

Encoding and Decoding

In 1973, the cultural theorist and political activist, Stuart Hall, presented his model of communication in his essay “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse”. His reception theory describes how producers use various signs to encode a programme’s meaning, according to their ideologies and resources, which is then decoded by the viewers, who have to interpret the message through their own framework of knowledge.

This approach emphasised the importance of the social and cultural context behind the flow of “meaningful” discourse. Hall summarised the process in the following diagram:

encoding / decoding diagram

For a television programme to be successful and meaningful communication to take place, Hall argued, the producers of the text and the audience sitting in their living rooms need to have a shared understanding of the signs used in the construction of the broadcast.

Meaning Structures 1

A worked example might help to clarify Hall’s reception theory. We are going to use BBC news output.

The first moment of this communication model involves the practices and technical infrastructure needed to produce a television programme. Each institution will have its own professional values and the people behind the project will be informed by their frameworks of knowledge and cultural assumptions.

For instance, the BBC is a public service broadcaster that is heavily dependent on licence fee money in order to support its output. Although the corporation is independent from direct government control, it is regulated by Ofcom and it needs to fulfil certain obligations, such as sustaining citizenship and civil society, and promoting education and learning. Therefore, its news programmes are supposed to offer an unbiased look at the main stories of the day.

The BBC is also the world’s largest national broadcaster with a huge infrastructure, such as cameras, studio space, lighting rigs and portable production units situated across the country. It certainly has the necessary means of production to investigate the issues and debates hitting the headlines so editorial decisions have to be made on which stories should feature in the news programme.

The relations of production refer to the different crews involved in the programme. Hall is drawing our attention to how messages are encoded by the producer, newscaster, content editor, camera operator and other technicians who help broadcast the news.

According to Hall’s reception theory, the messages being encoded and the signs used to deliver this information will be influenced by the production process.

In terms of television and photography, the theorist believed the visual and aural codes were iconic signs, borrowing from Charles Peirce’s definition that this category “possesses some of the properties of the thing being represented”. To demonstrate this relationship between the signifier and signified, Hall offered the wonderful example of a dog’s ability to bark loudly on television, but its inability to bite the audience.

For our worked example, consider the following headlines in response to Donald Trump testing positive for Covid-19 and decide which one comes from the BBC and which one was posted by Fox News, an institution that firmly supports the Republican party in America.

headlines

The first headline is the BBC’s attempt at being factual. Notice how it lacks the emotive “energetic” and the optimistic declaration that the president will still be able to “carry out duties”. If you are particularly eagle-eyed, you may have spotted the comma appears inside the inverted comma which is the American style of punctuation. In the UK, the comma would be written outside the quotation mark. This is another example of the context influencing he encoding of the message.

Meaning Structures 2

Of course, how these messages are decoded will depend on the political outlook of the audience member. Although the physical form of the sign remains the same, its connotation might shift because each person will have a different opinion of the very divisive Donald Trump.

There is also the issue of our own framework of knowledge. For example, were you able to decode the meaning of “WH”? Who is Pence? It is certainly possible for the audience’s framework of knowledge to be vastly different to the institution which produced the television programme. In this way, the reception theory recognises how messages can be understood and misunderstood.

Hall recognised this lack of symmetry between how the “source” understood a sign compared to how the “receiver” interpreted the form. To distinguish between the two connotations, the theorist simply labelled the meanings number one and number two. He also suggested we could consider audience motivation theories, such as Uses and Gratification theory of media consumption, in order to appreciate how we decode messages according to our own needs and ideologies.

Reproduction

If the intended meaning of the message is received and the communication process is successful, those signs will probably be used again for the next television programme. The continuous use of these forms and concepts will then create the social practices and myths we all take for granted. For example, it is a truth universally acknowledged that you do not squirt ketchup on a good steak.

In this way, the codes and conventions of television are quickly established and the programmes will reflect the dominant values and ideologies of the society.

Decoding Positions

Everyone will have their own interpretation of a television programme because we decode the meaning through our individual frameworks of knowledge. Our understanding of the media text is shaped by our age, social class, ethnicity, geography, and a myriad of other factors. Of course, the wider social and political context will also influence our reactions.

Stuart Hall offered three hypothetical decoding positions to describe this range of possible interpretations. A couple of examples will help illustrate the different readings.

Lara Croft

Some critics argue the iconic protagonist from the Tomb Raider franchise, Lara Croft, is a positive role model for young girls because she is an athletic action hero who travels through mysterious and hostile landscapes, defeating vicious enemies and saving the world from certain destruction. By contrast, other critics believe she is just another collection of pixels designed to satisfy the male gaze.

If there is symmetry between the encoded and decoded meanings of the message, then the viewer is operating within the dominant reading of the text. This is the first decoding position. The preferred reading of “Tomb Raider” celebrates the main character’s strength and her significant role in the adventure-based narratives. In fact, some girls might use Lara Croft’s positive representation to help construct their own confident identities.

Screenshot from "Tomb Raider: Anniversary"
Screenshot from “Tomb Raider: Anniversary”

An oppositional reading rejects this “girl power” message because they view the character’s representation as a gross exaggeration of the female body that appeals to adolescent fantasies. There is also the danger young girls might become dissatisfied with their own bodies because the representation of Lara Croft creates a false consciousness that they too need to be pixel perfect. What filters do you use when you post images on Instagram or upload a video to TikTok?

A negotiated reading recognises both interpretations of the text and positions itself somewhere in the middle. Although we need more diverse and realistic representations of femininity in computer games, Lara Croft is a strong female character so we should continue to enjoy her story.

For more analysis of Lara Croft, you should read our guide to “Tomb Raider: Anniversary”.

Face Masks

The general public’s reaction to wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic is another contemporary example of these three positions in Stuart Hall’s reception theory.

Boris Johnson wears a mask

The producer’s preferred reading is similar to the “wearing is caring” interpretation of Boris Johnson’s broadcasts to the nation. The second position refers to the negotiated reading. A viewer will appreciate the dominant reading and view it as a legitimate point of view. However, they will also adopt the meaning to suit their own values and ideology. This group of viewers will be inconsistent when it comes to wearing a mask in public.

An oppositional reading of the text is the third position identified by Hall. It is possible for the viewer to understand the connotations of the signs used in a broadcast, but they will decode the message within their alternative framework of reference and understand it in a very contrary way to the producer’s intentions. These viewers will see face masks as an attack on their liberty and refuse to wear them at all.

Exam Practice and Revision

The best way to develop your understanding of Stuart Hall’s reception theory is to apply the key concepts to a variety of media products. There are plenty of texts to analyse on our audience exam practice page, but the questions on the Game of Thrones DVD cover and the famous “Labour Isn’t Working” offer some revision of the encoding / decoding model of communication.

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